Wenbin Gao reviews the popular Chinese blockbuster, Gone with the Bullets, directed by Jiang Wen.
"In any case, I can't make a film about [contemporary issues] now. It would be rejected instantly by censors and there'd be worse trouble. I turned to historical films because they pass censors more easily. When you write about [current matters], what can you write? There'll be problems if you deal with real stories."
As a popular yet controversial director, Jiang Wen always finds himself in the spotlight. His new film, Gone with the Bullets, is set in 1920s Shanghai and its plot surrounds a beauty pageant. The film is one of Jiang Wen's trilogy on the Beiyang Government, the central authority in China in the 1910s and early 1920s. Although it has been a commercial success, bringing in over 500 million RMB at the box office, comments on the film have been extremely polarized.
The name of the film, Gone with the Bullets, shows an obvious connection with its predecessor, Let the Bullets Fly. Following Let the Bullets Fly, the new film continues to explore the dynamics of local Chinese politics. However, while both films touch on topics such as corruption, power, love and the all-encompassing theme of modernization, Gone with the Bullets develops the historical satire or illusion employed in Let the Bullets Fly to a new height. Surrounding the mysterious death of a prostitute named Ma Zouri, the film provides a dazzling overview of figures from all sides of the political spectrum, including warlords, western powers, members of the former Manchu aristocracy and police officers from the Shanghai French Concession. The grotesque death of Ma Zouri is both similar and different from the death of Meursault in Camus' L'Étranger. It is similar because it shows the helplessness of an individual. However, while such helplessness for Camus comes from the ontological irregularities of fate, for Jiang Wen, it comes from the disproportionate comparison between one man and the political community in which he resides.
Domestically, the new film has received largely negative comments. Although Let the Bullets Fly is widely recognized as a film with esoteric meanings, most people claim that they can at least understand it. The new film, however, is considered by most Chinese film critics as obscure and incomprehensible. Many critics criticized Jiang for being egotistical, and for experimenting with art in a way that neglects the receptivity of the audience. The moviegoers' complaints reinforce the criticism--many of them left halfway through the film because they couldn't understand it, for the rich historical allusions and the unconventional episodic narrative totally baffled them. The harsh criticism from the "big V" (an influential user of Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter) Wang Sicong, son of the Chinese billionaire Wang Jianlin, has added momentum to the already heated discussion on Weibo.
The film has also received mixed reviews abroad. Gone with the Bullets has been selected to be screened in the main competition section of the 65th Berlin International Film Festival and is celebrated by some critics as "a masterpiece full of surprises." However, other critics still make biting comparisons between Gone with the Bullets and Let the Bullets Fly. Film critic Edmund Lee from South China Morning Post wrote, "It was a tall order for Jiang Wen to replicate the acclaim of his satirical comedy Let the Bullets Fly (2010). With this second entry of his early republican China-set trilogy, the actor-director gets mixed results from an eccentric tale of obsession, wealth and power." He went on to call the film "a pompous tragicomedy" and a "glitzy and misanthropic spectacle."
Although overwhelmed by negative comments, Jiang himself remains confident about the artistic quality of the film. In an interview with Renmin Net, Jiang claimed his new film to be "the best of all of his works" and said he would "respond with arrogance to those who are arrogant."
What are the possible reasons for the polarization of opinions? First, many people, especially the majority of the domestic audience who are still used to traditional realism, cannot appreciate Jiang's avant-garde techniques. Second, the subject matter in the film, though similar to that in Let the Bullets Fly, is in fact much more complicated. The story sets its background in Shanghai, a merging point of East and West. It deals with not only Chinese characters, but also foreigners from countries such as France, Russia and Vietnam. It struggles with the theme of cultural and political exchanges between China and the west. The international dimension of China's modernization, which is largely absent in Let the Bullets Fly, is explicitly portrayed in the new film. Appreciating the film requires a certain level of knowledge in Chinese history that exceeds history textbooks and party propaganda, and the lack of this understanding results in the confusion of average Chinese moviegoers.
Jiang has always been a unique director because although he persistently explores historical subjects, he is able to remain in the mainstream and has enjoyed continuous financial success. Unlike other directors such as Lou Ye, Jia Zhangke and Zhang Yuan, who are either banned in China or remained low-profile due to the obscurity of their works, Jiang remains a popular and yet unorthodox interpreter of Chinese history. The only failed attempt is his film Devils on the Doorstep, which won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival in 2000 but was banned in China for seriously deviating from the official narrative of the Anti-Japanese War. On the whole, Jiang has not only survived the censorship system, which is especially suspicious of historically conscientious works, but has also gained prestige even within the regime. His method of esoteric expression has protected his films that might contain subversive elements. However, such a way of expression will inevitably distance himself from the public, making his films harder to understand.
Jiang confirmed that Gone with the Bullets has been modified by the authorities to such an extent that even his team "could not recognize the film" on the day of release. It remains unclear about what changes has been made. Nonetheless, it is clear that even history wrapped in obscure language is not immune from the censorship system. The co-existence of Jiang Wen with a regime that detests independent artistic expression of any kind is a fragile one. But up to this point, we are happy to see that Jiang has chiseled out some space in a mountain of monolithic authority to express his artistic talents. If Jiang persists, the hide and seek between him and the censors will continue.
Wenbin Gao is a freshman at Yale University. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article also appears in China Hands.